In 1996, Democrats and Republicans of all stripes were united in what they then referred to as "welfare reform," a project designed to make it more difficult for low-income Americans to obtain benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid. By making it harder to get assistance, politicos argued, the poor would try harder to get work. After passing a law banning felons with drug convictions from receiving food stamps, the feds said the reforms would also strike a blow to drug crimes.
But a study released earlier this year shows the exact opposite wound up happening in Florida. A University of Maryland researcher found that prison recidivism rates actually grew worse after the law took effect in the Sunshine State. In fact, researcher Cody Tuttle discovered that former felons turned back to crime just to make ends meet because they were automatically barred from accessing social-welfare programs after leaving jail.
"Looking closely at the types of crimes that land these offenders back in prison, I find that the increase in recidivism is driven by crimes that have a monetary motive (property crimes, selling drugs, etc.) rather than crimes like drug possession or violent crimes," Tuttle writes. (The Intercept first reported on the study last week.)
He found that people convicted of drug crimes after the ban took effect were 9 percent likelier to wind up back in prison.
The results of those mid-'90s changes are still reverberating in Florida. For one, the state still has a partial ban on food stamps for felons. And state politicians are still debating similar sorts of draconian welfare crackdowns in 2018. In Tallahassee, the GOP has repeatedly floated adding work requirements to Medicaid in order to "encourage" the poor to seek work (as if the vast majority were not already doing exactly that).
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Tuttle wrote that the ripple effects of Florida's ban on felons getting food stamps was particularly easy to study. When the federal law passed in 1996, Florida modified it to apply to only people convicted of drug-trafficking crimes after August 23, 1996. Thanks to the specific type of crime and date cutoff, he was able to more easily compare what happened to felons after the law took effect.
In a section that will really catch the eye of fiscal, budget-hawk conservatives, the food-stamp ban actually wound up costing Florida more money in the long run. Tuttle's research shows it was likely cheaper for states never to crack down on those benefits, because the cost of incarcerating the added felons wound up totaling more than $70 million.
In comparison, the average food-stamp recipient received benefits of only about $80 to $150 per month. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, more than half of food-stamp recipients stop using the benefits after 36 months, and nearly one-third of beneficiaries quit after a single year.
"I find the societal cost of the ban in Florida is about $3,700 per banned offender," Tuttle writes. "With approximately 19,000 banned offenders, this implies the ban has cost Florida over $70 million to date, a number that grows with every new trafficker who resorts to crime to make up for the lost benefits."